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Six Lives on the Nationwide Portrait Gallery reveals Henry VIII’s wives misplaced the battle for a legacytheinsiderinsight

I’ve solely brought on a Twitter cancellation as soon as in my life. It’s one thing I discover mildly embarrassing to recollect – me, the uppity twentysomething, drunk on the facility of my smartphone – however, in my defence, it was a unique time. A time when casting round for issues to be irritated about earlier than loudly, unselfconsciously declaring them to be evil was a much-embraced collective pastime. The topic of my ire? It was a, erm… mug. Sure, I used to be within the present store of a beloved heritage organisation that I shall not title, when I discovered myself confronted by a ingesting receptacle with fancy, heat-sensitive properties. Alongside it was an indication: “Pour in a scorching beverage and watch as Henry’s six wives vanish!”

Urgh, I believed. The trivialising of the lives – and, in some circumstances, killings – of Henry VIII’s spouses. Gross. Others felt the identical. The response was nearly on the spot – the evil mug needed to go. “An enormous mistake”, “Vile and never humorous” and “What the precise f***?” featured among the many pattern of responses. Subsequent got here the honest apology from the place promoting the merchandise. Reader, a day later, that mug was not on the market. Humorous, then, to return head to head with it as soon as extra within the Nationwide Portrait Gallery’s Six Lives: The Story of Henry VIII’s Queens exhibition, the place it sits in a glass field of coasters, DVDs, Christmas decorations, and different Tudor-wife ephemera. Collected from numerous members of the gallery’s workers, this stuff are a reminder that the “divorced, beheaded, died” crew make for queasily good merch.

Virtually 10 years since mug-gate, when expressing dismay at how Henry VIII handled ladies was a straightforward win, this exhibition is pushing at an open door. It’s taking place simply down the street from Six, Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’s whip-smart pop live performance slash feminist historical past lesson (slash non secular expertise), through which the wives of Henry VIII lastly get to inform their tales (“Us two needed to get X-rated / Quickly, ex-communicated / Everyone chill, it’s totes God’s will,” sings Anne Boleyn in “Don’t Lose Ur Head”). That present, one of many greatest breakout hits in years, is now twirling its neck ruffles on Broadway; the fascination with the Tudors, whose Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-century lives are normally the primary cartoonish figures we meet at school historical past classes, is everlasting, the urge for food for a extra feminist studying of that interval ongoing. Six Lives – which, naturally, options one of many costumes from Six – goals to each discover these ladies as people and take a look at their lengthy cultural afterlives. However does it actually supply us a unique perspective?

First, guests should face what these ladies needed to take care of, within the form of Hans Holbein the Youthful’s 1573 portrait of Henry VIII. It’s a picture that got here to characterize energy itself, with the wall textual content pointing to the very fact a few of his choices stay in place nearly 500 years later. The portray, we’re instructed, was “meant to overwhelm its authentic viewers”. You are feeling it: the steely glare, the preposterous clothes, the flexibility to intimidate. It’s deeply affecting, then, that only a few steps away are Hiroshi Sugimoto’s haunting black and white pictures of waxwork fashions of the six wives. In these bizarre, unusually stunning works, the ladies look as if they’ve simply stepped out of historical past and will flip and face you, whereas additionally feeling in some way creepy and faux. It’s the bind through which their legacies have left them: their humanity will stay without end simply past our attain. The portrait of Anne of Cleves is especially transferring, given how usually we’re instructed that each one portraits of her repulsed the English public. Right here she appears swish, sensible, and just a bit bit unhappy.

This eeriness across the ladies and their absent presence in historical past isn’t fairly replicated elsewhere within the exhibition. The present desires to transcend “divorced, beheaded, died”, to remind us of one thing simply forgotten: that these ladies have been by no means all in the identical room collectively, regardless of the very fact they’re without end portrayed as a collective. The issue is that the portraits we already know so nicely make up a lot of what stays of them, no less than when it comes to their pictures.

The place the present is efficient is in stating simply how unsteady these footage are. One portrait is labelled “In all probability Katherine Howard”; one other show of miniatures of the six ladies says that, by the seventeenth century, pictures of Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard and Katherine Parr had change into confused. How can we make certain we’re taking a look at who we predict we’re taking a look at? This uneasiness returns taking a look at Richard Burchett’s Nineteenth-century oil panels, with Anne Boleyn depicted as I’ve by no means seen her.

Katherine of Aragon costume from the musical ‘Six’
Katherine of Aragon costume from the musical ‘Six’ (Gabrielle Slade/Victoria and Albert Museum)

One room devoted to artworks owned or commissioned by the ladies factors to how conscious they have been of the facility of storytelling and imagery, as does the staggeringly intricate clothes and jewelry on show in most portraits. However these items additionally allowed them to evade historical past’s gaze in their very own approach, too. When human particulars come, they’re uncommon and disarming. Comparable to the truth that Katherine Howard needed to rehearse her execution the evening earlier than, “to minimise the spectacle”, or that Jane Seymour needed to be shielded from all “dramatic information” as a consequence of fears she would have a miscarriage. However rooms devoted to every of the ladies can nonetheless really feel like chasing shadows. Anne Boleyn’s specifically is full of portraits of males who have been out to get her, or that she was accused of getting an affair with. It’s onerous to not discover it deflating.

A portrait of Anne Boleyn by an unknown artist
A portrait of Anne Boleyn by an unknown artist (Nationwide Portrait Gallery)

The gesture behind Six Lives jogged my memory of Hallie Rubenhold’s fantastic Baillie Gifford Award-winning guide The 5, through which she salvaged the tales of the ladies murdered by Jack the Ripper, giving them again their identities as actual individuals slightly than faceless victims. However right here, too usually the path is chilly. It’s the thorn within the present’s aspect, one which feels poignant as a result of it’s very onerous to vary. As a part of the present alludes to – and it’s one thing it might have made extra of – there are quite a few books, movies and performs about Henry VIII and his wives. There’s in fact loads of analysis and scholarship. The present’s actual emotional influence, in addition to its inevitable weak point, although, is in reminding us of how unsure and elusive the pictures of those ladies stay. Perhaps the evil mug was proper in spite of everything? Perhaps there may be nothing to do however watch Henry VIII’s wives vanish.

Six Lives: The Tales of Henry VIII’s Queen is on the Nationwide Portrait Gallery from 20 June till 8 September; npg.org.uk

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